For more than 24 hours, protesters with the environmental group Greenpeace have suspended from ropes below Portland’s St. Johns Bridge like spiders hanging by a thread, blocking the passage of the Fennica, an icebreaker that is key to Shell’s Arctic oil exploration plans.
A judge in Alaska has ruled that Greenpeace will be fined $2,500 for each hour the protesters remain in place. The U.S. Coast Guard and the Portland Police Bureau have not made any attempts to remove them.
OPB spoke with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales, who also serves as the city’s police commissioner, about who has jurisdiction over the protesters and whether they have his support.
Q&A with Portland Mayor Charlie Hales
OPB: Have you instructed the Portland Police not to attempt to remove Greenpeace’s protesters from the St. Johns Bridge?
Mayor Charlie Hales: No. We have a role here, and that is that we as a community have several goals that are pretty important. One is we have to work to keep everybody safe: protesters, people trying to get to and from their homes in St. Johns, and anywhere else in the city.
Secondly, we always support First Amendment rights here in Portland. And we err on the side of inconveniencing ourselves a little bit, so a march can go down the street or in this case, so that people can protest something they’re very passionate about — the climate and the issue of drilling in the Arctic. And then third, we have a responsibility to enforce the law, that includes the law of allowing people to move themselves and their goods and services around the city.
Those principles apply in this case just like they do in any other, and the Portland Police Bureau is a supporting player in the work with the Coast Guard to make sure that channel is open and available to shipping.
OPB: Right now that channel is not open and available to shipping, at least for one vessel. So free speech is the value we are protecting the most at the moment. Is there a point at which interference with the shipping channel will become unacceptable?
Hales: Yes, just like there’s a point at which any First Amendment exercise occupying public space is eventually going to have to be ended and life has to go on. But again, protests are helpful. They highlight issues people are passionate about, and they lead to changing laws. We are a nation of laws, and if people want drilling in the Arctic to stop, we need to change the law. That’s the point those protesters are making with this very dramatic gesture. And we support and appreciate that right to protest. But we also have a city that needs to operate here and at some point, that needs to get going again.
OPB: A couple of our local leaders — Sen. Jeff Merkely comes to mind — have been very clear that they do not support drilling in the Arctic. What’s your personal position on drilling in the Arctic?
Hales: I agree with that. We’re a city that for 20 years has had a climate action plan where we try to put our values into practice here, about how we live. And there’s more work to do on that front, about, say, quadrupling the number of solar panels on city buildings so we buy renewable power, so that we run our fleets on biodisel. There’s things we can do here to be responsible actors, but we’re also part of a national and global discussion, where people including (Pope Francis) are calling on us to do more and to do the right thing, and to think boldly about these issues while there is still time.
I respect and understand the passion of people that are saying it’s time to stop drilling in places where we have been drilling and it’s time to not start in places like the Arctic that are so vulnerable.
I respect the point of view, but again, I have a responsibility as mayor and ultimately as police commissioner to make sure that people are safe and can get on with their lives, even people that are moving ships around.
OPB: When it comes to the protesters on the bridge, if at some point they need to be removed, who has the authority to do that? Is it the Coast Guard, or is it the Portland Police Bureau?
Hales: As I understand it — and I don’t necessarily understand all the legalities of it — the Coast Guard is the lead agency for keeping the shipping channel open, and they have the right and responsibility to call on local law enforcement, whether it’s the county, which runs the river patrol, or the police bureau, which patrols the streets of the city, to help them. And if they call on us to help them, we will.
OPB: One more question: have you been in communication with Shell over this?
Hales: No, not personally.